Sono Osato, Boundary-Breaking Japanese-American Dancer, Dies at 99
Sono Osato, a trailblazing ballet and musical theater dancer, passed away last Wednesday at her home in New York City.
Best known for originating the role of Miss Turnstiles in Jerome Robbins’ hit On the Town—one of Broadway’s first non-segregated musicals—Osato got her start at 14 as the youngest member of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, and as the troupe’s first Japanese-American performer. She went on to dance for Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre), where she found success in New York City but was banned from touring in Mexico and California because of her Japanese background. For a brief time, Osato went by her mother’s maiden name, Fitzpatrick, in an effort to escape the World War II-era anti-Japanese sentiment. During the war, her father was confined under military guard in Chicago as an enemy alien.
Osato won a Donaldson Award for best female dancer for her first Broadway show, One Touch of Venus, choreographed by Agnes de Mille. She performed acting roles in two additional Broadway shows, Willie the Weaper and a 1951 revival of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, and appeared in the 1948 film The Kissing Bandit alongside Frank Sinatra.
Later in life, Osato was a significant benefactor of Career Transitions for Dancers and received the organization’s award for Outstanding Contributions to the World of Dance in 2008. In 2015, she was the subject of a dance-theater piece for Thodos Dance Chicago, which was based on interviews with Osato.
Our thoughts are with Osato’s family and friends.